Females account for 26 percent of small-business ownership nationally. Not in Berlin. Women here own 80 percent of the town's 50-plus independently owned businesses
Toni Stuart came to Berlin for lunch with a friend one memorable day 30 years ago, and she developed a hunger to open an antiques store in the quaint, little town. Stuart, who had spent a long career in Washington, D.C., working for the Department of the Navy as, among other posts, head of technology and special assistant in systems and software operations, was ready for life’s next chapter and knew Berlin was just the right place to call home.
“I said, ‘When I retire, this is the kind of town I want to have a little shop in,’” said Stuart, 77, a lifelong antiques enthusiast. “Two weeks later, I got a call. [My friend] said, ‘Toni, I leased you a shop.’ I’ve come a long way since then.”
Berlin comprises a thriving group of female business owners who have played integral roles in turning “America’s Coolest Small Town” into a popular destination for locals and visitors of the area to shop, dine and explore all that it has to offer. Like other local business owners, Stuart has appreciated the economic highs and survived the lows that came with the emergence of nationwide chain stores, the recession and the growing popularity of online shopping. But she adds that there will always be a charm and value to visiting the historic town she’s proud to call home.
“Recent years have been fabulous,” said Stuart, who opened Stuarts’ Antiques on Pitts Street in 1988. “People are buying antiques again. People are buying fine jewelry. The town is very busy, and people are coming from all over to experience what we have to offer. It’s very exciting.”
A joint Lending Club-Guidant Financial survey earlier this year concluded that females accounted for 26 percent of small-business ownership nationally, which is an increase of 18 percent from 2017. In Berlin, women own a staggering 80 percent of the town’s more than 50 independent businesses, from newer ventures, such as CDF Fine Jewelry and Bruder Home, to longstanding icons, like the Atlantic Hotel (123 years old), The Treasure Chest (41 years old) and 26-year-old Bunting Realty.
“We have people waiting for space to become available to rent,” said Terri Sexton, 57, who took over The Treasure Chest on North Main Street from her father, Bill Freeman, in January 2000. “If one business goes out, there’s another business coming in.”
Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said Berlin’s female business owners cultivate a “welcoming atmosphere” that has “become part of the culture of our community.” Rightly, these women have been recognized this year, during the town’s Year of the Woman celebration. Events were recently held in conjunction with Berlin’s 150th anniversary, including a meet-and-greet with female business owners at their stores on Oct. 13 — the same day Berlin’s milestone birthday was honored.
“There is such a demand, and some of the women realize that,” said Ivy Wells, Berlin’s director of Economic and Community Development, who works with property owners to match their space with ventures that complement the vibrant business district. Wells pointed to Patty Jean’s Boutique, which she said satisfied Berlin’s need for another clothing store and incentivized owner Megan Cosman to move her business to North Main Street from Broad Street. Wells said Dream Weaver, a female-owned business featuring clothing, textiles and fair-trade items, will soon open on South Main Street. Wells also noted that a female-owned business will be moving into a new mixed-use building on Gay Street, which has been rezoned for commercial use.
“Women are intelligent, and we know how to run a business,” Wells said. “We know what works, and the women of Berlin continue to make it work well.”
That successful approach has provided the foundation for Berlin’s revitalized downtown, most notably since being named part of the Main Street Maryland Program in 2008. The 20-year-old program, according to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, “strives to strengthen the economic potential of Maryland’s traditional Main Streets and neighborhoods,” through the proper design, promotion and economic development of local businesses, as well as other factors. Berlin’s business owners, especially its females, work together to ensure all share in the economic benefits.
Like Stuart, Rhonda Pilarski wanted to open her own business in Berlin and discovered the perfect location for a salon one day while having lunch downtown nine years ago. She placed those aspirations on hold, however, to raise her two children, now teenagers. The timing finally felt right in May 2017, when that “great spot” became available again. Shortly after, Pilarski completed her business plan, secured financing and achieved her goal. “I can’t believe I’m part of it now,” said the 49-year-old owner of Salon Sixteen, a year-old studio that was named a Coastal Style Best Of winner in 2018.
Mayor Williams said Berlin’s female business owners have embraced a personal, heartfelt approach to positive promotion. “The way people are encouraged not to sell but to serve, that’s another thing these ladies do very well,” Williams said. “One thing I almost never hear is, ‘How may I help you?’ It’s ‘How are you doing? Where are you from? What brings you to town? Have you been to Berlin before?’ They talk to you like you’re a human being, not a potential source of income. That is a wonderful, wonderful approach, which I hope remains a part of our community for generations.”
Lead Photo IDs: Kneeling: Lynne Lockhart. From left: Heidi Johnson, Hunter Smith, Michelle Fager, Rhonda Pilarski, Jennifer Fisher, Chrissy Ehrhart, Toni Stuart, Olga Kozhernikova, Terri Street, Bard Stack, Jen Dawicki, Maria Brittingham, Robin Tomaselli, Caroline Downes, Megan Cosman, Autumn Faber, Emily Vocke, Shelly Bruder, Brenda Malone, Donna Compher, Terri Sexton, Cam Bunting and Brenda Trice.
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